Saturday, 29 September 2012

Teaching Modern Christian Thought

I have several research projects that I want to finish. I would like to write an article in the next few months on the religion of an eighteenth-century Scottish minister, and this summer I am planning on writing an article on early evangelicals and their relationships with printers, publishers, and booksellers. This last article will require a lot of research that I have only begun to assemble. I also am close to finishing my second book project, an anthology of transatlantic eighteenth-century evangelicals. I am about halfway done with the final editing and have collected nearly all the images and permission rights for the book. But I have put all these writing projects aside the last week or so in order to prepare for my spring 2013 courses, "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" and "Modern Christian Thought."

Most recently, I have been working on "Modern Christian Thought." This is a course that I taught in the fall of 2011. When I looked for a textbook, I had difficulty choosing among the available options. There is a very good two-volume series on Modern Christian Thought, published by Fortress Press. But these books are massive (the first volume is over 400 pages, and the second is over 500 pages) and cover lots of thinkers who I have no intention of going over in the course. I came to the same conclusion with regard to Gareth Jones's Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology and David Ford's The Modern Theologians. These are very helpful resources for teachers, but not concise enough for undergraduate courses. I almost convinced myself to use John E. Wilson's excellent Introduction to Modern Theology as a textbook, but about one-third of the way through, I realized that it would be more suitable for graduate students due to the complexity of the arguments discussed.

While I appreciate Roger Olson's and Stan Grenz's award-winning 20th-Century Theology, I don't feel comfortable using it at a state university. Since this book is clearly written from an evangelical perspective, it seems more fitting for Christian colleges and seminaries. But if Olson and Grenz show a bias towards traditional Christian theology, the opposite may be said of Duane Olson and his Issues in Contemporary Christian Thought. I commend the author for writing a textbook on modern theology designed for undergraduates. If only he had treated traditional Christianity fairly, perhaps his book would have wider appeal. The latest book I considered was Kelly Kapic's and Bruce McCormack's edited volume, Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Interpretation. The problem here had to do with its methodology. As opposed to a thematic approach, I prefer having the students study each theologian individually and chronologically.

In the end, I decided to use the Fortress Press readers on leading 19th- and 20th-century thinkers. I plan on requiring the students to read several sections by five modern theologians. Last year I had them analyze excerpts from Schleiermacher, Hegel, Bultmann, Barth, and Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer was the overwhelming favorite). If Mark Noll's The Princeton Theology: 1812-1921 was not out of print, I would have included excerpts from Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield. This year I am replacing Hegel with the German church historian, Adolf von Harnack. As important as Hegel is to modern Christian thought, the students in my previous class bemoaned reading sections in his Phenomenology of Spirit and his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. As they read these primary sources, I have them answer questions on aspects of a particular author's theology, writing half-page responses in an essay format.

Besides readings from these primary sources, I have the students do research on an additional theologian or movement of their choice and then present their findings to the class. The last time I taught Modern Christian Thought, I had them choose from among the following: Karl Rahner, Albrecht Ritschl, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jurgen Moltmann, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, John Hick, and Joseph Ratzinger. Next spring, however, I may expand this list to include Charles Hodge, Soren Kierkegaard, and Walter Rauschenbusch.

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